They've been referred to as "sneakerheads," a legion of enthusiasts who, quite literally, get their kicks from customized sneakers — the bolder, the more flamboyant, the better. Arriving on a wave of footwear frenzy, their so-called "shoe culture" brings a whole new meaning to footwear. Diversitile Custom Clothing, a local art troupe consisting of four 20-something artists, is doing its part to bring the commotion to Orlando.
When Diversitile founder and president Chris "Signature C" Campbell was asked last summer to customize shoes for the Remix, a clothing store in Rockledge, the artist wasn't sure what to expect. Campbell, familiar with the smooth planes of canvas, had to adapt to a sneaker's irregular surface. Nonetheless, his handiwork sent Rockledge shoeheads into a tizzy and prompted him to turn the hobby into a full-fledged business. The only problem was that shoe culture had yet to fully take Orlando by the horns. He needed some help.
Taking a chance on the venture, Campbell approached Mark Thor, a graphic design major and now Diversitile's VP, whom he had met in art classes at Brevard Community College. The two joined up with studio art major John "Roach" Terramoccia and graphic design major Richard "Richie Rich" Gordon at UCF, where most of the crew currently studies. For Campbell, this diversity was a key element: "I didn't want to get together a bunch of people who did the same things," he says. Still, a common knowledge of classical training unifies the group and has sharpened their eyes to color, proportion and form.
Each member injects his specialty into the designs. Campbell's photographic sensibilities capture lickable ice-cream cones and prowling jungle cats, while Thor assumes a surrealistic stance. Terramoccia tackles wild graffiti style and lettering; Gordon works on much of the marketing, in addition to contributing his own designs. Since the members are "diverse" in artistic backgrounds and "versatile" in their masteries, the label Diversitile just made sense. The combination proved explosive as the group began to pump out the product.
That was just six months ago. Since then, Diversitile has been enjoying local buzz from shoe enthusiasts and grocery-store gawkers alike. "You wonder why people are always stopping to stare and you forget that you're wearing the shoes," Thor says.
Brainstorming sessions for new projects are "a process to emulate and originate," Thor says, and he cites both fashion and works by other shoe artists as core inspirations. The guys aren't afraid to check each other's work. "It's kind of like having someone proofread your paper," Thor says. In terms of what can be put on the shoe, there are no limits; the shoes just have to be leather, otherwise those new beauties won't stand a chance of survival against environmental elements.
Campbell attests that getting the paint onto the shoe involves serious work — sometimes up to seven hours. Tedious paint-layering coincides with painstaking precision to achieve the clean, crisp looks that are showcased on the team's MySpace page. After the design is completed, it is coated with a protectant that helps to shield it from everyday wear and tear, though the shoes are best suited for "moderate wear" — meaning that even though the design on your shoes says otherwise, they won't make you soar like Mike, so keep them off the court.
"We always tell our customers it's still paint — it still has the chance to chip, to flake off. But if you're careful with them, they will last a long time," Thor says. Campbell adds, "You don't get customized shoes to go play soccer or basketball in them."
Though Diversitile has primarily worked in men's sneakers, it recently expanded its reach to women's shoes and accessories. The crew has painted everything from Dora the Explorer to the face of a friend's newborn child, and even cranked out a pair of Wonder Woman stiletto boots. You could find these looks in the most fashion-forward cities in the world, but Orlando's probably one of the few places to get them for a steal at approximately $70 a pair, depending on the cost of materials and your shoe fantasies. For an exquisite job, such as a pair emblazoned with a generously detailed midnight-blue panther — aka Campbell's "babies" — the price can jump up to $120.
What's certain is that the shoes are as unique as the person walking in them. "I think our culture really likes that they can get something customized just for themselves. Even if we did make another copy of the shoes, they wouldn't be the same," Campbell says. "Some of the shoes really tell a story. It's like a tattoo on your arm, but on your shoes."
Sneakers are just the beginning. The group has broadened their horizons and is testing techniques on apparel. On Jan. 18, Diversitile unveiled a versatile line at UCF'S Project Elements: An Urban Fashion Show. Sweatshirts, T-shirts and hats were among the crowd favorites.
For Diversitile, it's all about gaining artistic respect and bettering their craft while they produce a product that's in demand by a growing market. Thor says that their work has captured the interest of retailers in various parts of the country, which is a good thing, because it's about time for Orlando to be known for more than that firstname.lastname@example.org